Friday, July 24, 2009

Early Cronkite

I really have to thank Dave Itzkoff for his post to the New York Times ArtsBeat blog for directing me to an exemplary specimen of writing that also happens to have historical interest. All it took was his first sentence to send me chasing down the hyperlink:

A 1935 profile of Gertrude Stein from The Daily Texan, unearthed by the student newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin and published at its Web site, was written Walter Cronkite, who was an 18-year-old undergraduate at the university when he wrote it.

This is a writing specimen that does double duty. While some may see it as an indication of Cronkite's precocity, I see it more as an affirmation that what one needs to know about good writing can be acquired at an early age. (In my case I acquired the basics in high school as part of preparation for the Writing Sample section of the College Boards.) The hard part is not in learning the rules but in acquiring the discipline to take them seriously and maintaining that discipline through constant practice. Simply by deciding to work for the student newspaper, Cronkite had committed himself to that discipline of maintenance; and we are fortunate that he did, indeed, maintain it throughout his professional life. This sample is thus inspiring to both those who aspire to write and those who have done so for much of their lives.

At the same time it is also valuable for its choice of subject matter. Gertrude Stein is no longer as controversial as she was in 1935. Unfortunately, this may have much to do with the fact that she is largely ignored today. Ironically, today's neglect of her work would probably not disturb her, at least not if she took seriously the words Cronkite reported her saying:

A writer isn’t anything but contemporary. The trouble is that the people are living Twentieth Century and thinking Nineteenth Century.

By presenting the straightforward nature of her conversational speech, Cronkite blunted those who could only deride her for her rose-is-a-rose-is-a-rose efforts to experiment with the nature of speech beyond the meanings of the words. Still, that quote bears reflection, even if we encounter it only out of curiosity about Cronkite's early writing. We now live in the Twenty-First Century; but it is far from clear in which century our thoughts are now based. Indeed, much of the social division we now encounter may be a matter of different thoughts based in different centuries. Reading this profile from 1935 makes me think that it may be time to revisit the books I have that document some of the lectures that Stein gave to audiences such as the one at the University of Texas.

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